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A third runway for Heathrow?

Updated Thursday, 28th February 2008

'Heathrow: Ready for Take Off?' considers the possibility of a third runway for the airport - a controversial decision affecting many different groups of stakeholders.

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In common with other decisions to develop and expand large infrastructure projects (like road networks and large power stations or wind farms), there’s a lot of complexity and uncertainty being experienced in the decision situation. Decisions about such infrastructure projects are also deeply embedded in history. Through interconnections with other related decisions they can typically be traced back not just years but decades.   Heathrow Terminal Five Creative commons image Icon Stephen Rees under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Heathrow Terminal 5

Techniques such as predictive modelling of capacities and monetary valuation of costs and benefits can aid decision making. However, users of these techniques have different values and inevitably make assumptions that are not always made explicit.  One group of stakeholders might feel that everything that matters can be expressed in monetary terms whereas another group might believe that some aspects (e.g. habitat or settlement destruction or rights to livelihoods) cannot be weighed up in this way.

Much critique about expanding airports comes from an environmental point of view – from concerns about increased noise and greenhouse gas emissions. Many now argue for sustainable development and decision making that takes account of not just economic and social considerations, such as potential jobs or trade, but also environmental factors.

But what is meant by sustainable development varies a lot, and different issues arise at different levels. What might be thought sustainable at a national level by one group of stakeholders can differ considerably from what is thought at local or international levels by others. For instance, there are many examples from the UK where a new large-scale housing or tourism development has been rejected by planners at a local level, on grounds that it’s unsustainable. Yet the decision has been over-turned at national level, where it’s considered sustainable against a different set of criteria.

There are many ethical issues around how a decision is reached, including

  • who decides
  • who has responsibility for what
  • which data are used
  • what purpose data are used for 

Taking into account the perspectives of many different stakeholders in a situation can involve highly complex and time-consuming processes. Another challenge in decision making is in keeping tuned in to changing contexts. By the time a decision is actually made, about say expansion of transport infrastructure, the assumptions made might well be out of date, at least from some perspectives.

Despite the huge literature on decision making, there are no easy answers to finding decision-making processes that will meet the needs of different stakeholders in complex and uncertain situations. One group of approaches that has the potential to work well in situations of complexity and uncertainty are ‘systems approaches’.

Systems approaches tend to work by helping to make assumptions, purposes and worldviews explicit, and by valuing and working with multiple perspectives. They can also help in keeping interconnections and the possibility of unintended consequences in mind.  A scheme such as an airport’s expansion devised with particular purposes in mind might well have unintended consequences and be viewed quite differently from the future. One question for me when thinking of the Heathrow situation is ‘how systemic is the approach that is being used for making this decision?’

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